Chamber of Horrors
Julien Allen on Saving Private Ryan

In defense of violence in film, Otto Preminger reflected that because there was nothing more powerful to an audience than the fear of death, filmmakers had a duty to show it. An audience, reasoned Preminger, expected to be frightened.

Immediately prior to the birth of cinema, the Fantasmagorie (horror) puppet theatre of Emile Cohl lit the path towards the type of entertainment that films would immediately provide. It’s ironic that the Lumières’ train, arriving in La Ciotat (in what is recognized rather dubiously as the first “commercial” film) is memorable only for unintentionally striking terror into its audience, who believed the train was heading straight into the theater. Fear has always been an essential component of cinema's appeal, and fear in the wider sense (what the French call angoisse) inhabits almost every genre, from horror, through suspense pictures, to romantic drama and comedy. All audiences want to experience discomfort in the cinema to some degree—what divides audiences more, is the extent to which they want to be delivered from it by the end.

In this sense, the noise of a gunshot, the most temporally efficient evocation of death, could be argued to be the most purely cinematic sound of all. It contains, in a split second, an aural shock and the fear of its repercussions. When Edwin S. Porter had Justus D. Barnes turn towards the screen at the end of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and fire his colt straight at the audience, he showed a supreme and immediate understanding of the nature and appeal of commercial cinema.

Filmmakers, recognizing their power over audiences, have often striven to elevate the gunshot’s impact by manipulating the sound. Most prominent was the spaghetti western's absurd amplification of the volume of the gunshot relative to the rest of the soundtrack, (Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, Corbucci’s Django) along with the long, echoing ricochets, as if providing an orchestral accompaniment, or even segueing straight into a burst of music from the soundtrack. More sophisticated techniques followed: gunshots in cavernous underground spaces (such as in Walter Hill’s The Driver) provided a particularly satisfying amplification and echo effect; George Lucas created an iconic sonic equivalent for outer space—the sound of a blaster in Star Wars; John Woo (in The Killer and Hard-Boiled) liked to accompany a gunshot by the sound of empty shell casings hitting the ground. In recent years, the menace of secrecy and cold efficiency has been added to the fear of the gun by the plentiful use of the movie “silencer” (one of cinema’s great myths is that the sound of the gunshot can be reduced to a muffled fizz, when in reality even the best silencer can reduce the decibel levels of a gunshot by about 30 percent at most).

The first sixty seconds of the fabled Omaha Beach sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan are all about the fear of the gun. As the landing crafts churn towards the shore, we see a shaking hand grasp a flask, soldiers puking, then the faces of a number of men in turn, some breathing heavily, others grimacing, steeling themselves for the onslaught. When we first catch sight of Tom Hanks’s Captain John Miller, he wears the wry, macabre smile of a man who knows precisely what’s coming.

What follows happens breathtakingly quickly. The first impact of a bullet comes at 5:30 (the two men at the front of the landing craft are immediately taken down as the hatch opens) followed at 5:32 by a bullet piercing the front of the helmet of a third man, passing through his head and going on to strike the man behind him. There follows a hail of bullets claiming at least six more soldiers in the landing craft between 5:32 and 5:39, accompanied by what appear to be small pieces of flesh torn free (as if the men were pieces of ripe fruit) and, in a striking reportage effect, a smattering of blood hitting the camera lens. The power and suddenness of those first ten seconds of mayhem is unforgettable, but all the more remarkable (and radical) in that until the tenth second, not a single gunshot is actually heard. What Spielberg has done, quite deliberately, is to immediately harness and crystallize the real source of our fear: not the gun, but the bullet.

In the addendum devoted to Saving Private Ryan in the 2007 edition of Tomlinson Holman’s reference book Surround Sound: Up and Running, Spielberg’s sound designer Gary Rydstrom took pains to point out that he called upon the acoustic memories of the veterans of the D-Day landings to inform his sound design (tanks, guns, bullets), but that it was also the vividness of such memories that convinced Spielberg and Rydstrom of the overall importance of sound to the finished film. He was also keen to stress that “the film could not have been made in the same way if it were not for the possibilities of theatrical surround sound.” The sound Rydstrom devised for the bullet, which indeed relies almost exclusively on state-of-the-art stereo sound systems found in modern theaters (and which simply cannot provide anything like the same effect on DVD), resembles the sound of an arrow screaming past the audience from the back or the side of the theater and onto the screen. This is followed by a “squib” impact, either into canvas and flesh or, more frequently, into the metal of the soldiers’ helmets or the iron crosses of the beach defenses. Other impacts also occur at the sides of the theater. The whole effect feels close, like the bullet has missed the audience, but only just. With proliferate use of this effect, Spielberg places the audience “inside the film.” This creates a genuine sense of immersion, which studios are now striving for by the use of 3D, but with noticeably less success.

The entire 24-minute Omaha beach scene has been much analyzed for its bravura construction: horrific and sensory, but also manipulative, like a theme park ride that has been expertly designed to increase your heart rate. Janusz Kaminski's use of a 90-degree shutter angle is justly fêted, but is arguably not the most resonant element of the sequence, which in the theater at least, is the sound.

If we roll the film on for the next 30 seconds, at 5:40 Spielberg cuts to the source of the mayhem, inside the gun shelters at the top of the beach, in another reportage-style shot, (this time lifted from the shot in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, where the soldiers defend Jack Ripper’s barracks from their own army’s tanks): we see ammunition belts being fed through mounted German machine guns in silhouette, with the landing crafts in the distance in deep focus. It’s only at this point in the film that the sound of gunfire truly erupts. Oddly, despite emphasizing the hopeless disadvantage of the American positions, it feels like a moment of respite, in that it places the audience back in the familiar (we have heard machine guns before) while we digest the impact of the first ten seconds. At 5:47, we are back in the landing craft as more bodies are felled; then at 5:56, further respite, as the camera follows a group of soldiers over the edge of one of the carriers and under the water to be met with . . . silence. Perhaps we ought to know better than to expect from the director of Jaws that being underwater brings safety. Silence is deadly, and at 6:05 the first visible bullet streaks through the water, at 6:13 two men are hit, such kills proving all the more terrifying for the muffled “silencer” effect that accompanies them.

The reasons for opening the film in this way are numerous—to immediately capture the audience’s attention; to pay homage to the veterans by recreating as closely as possible the full uncensored horror of the event; but above all to place into a terrifying context the dynamics of the somewhat parochial mission that the main characters are being asked to undertake. They are not there to liberate France, but to find an American soldier and bring him back to his family—the liberation of France is just a backdrop. A supreme achievement of the film is that the background never once allows the foreground to escape it. From a movie-going perspective, the biggest success of the beach sequence is the way in which the sound of the Rydstrom-Spielberg bullet, underscoring the horror witnessed on Omaha Beach, induces a Pavlovian reaction in the viewer every time it is used again in the film. Cinema may be images first, then sound, but if you shut your eyes and hear sound, vivid images can be recreated in the mind's eye much more easily than the other way around.

This aspect of the film is not universally appreciated. Saving Private Ryan has been attacked, notably by such critics as Andrew Sarris and Jonathan Rosenbaum, not only as further evidence of Spielberg's obsession with relentless brutality (present in his work from the beginning, but which first began to truly disturb audiences when he dramatized real historical events in Schindler's List and Amistad) but also for providing an opening set piece which the rest of this more conventional (some might say cliché-ridden) story simply cannot match in dramatic power. The second criticism is missing the point, because the rest of the film is clearly intended to be accompanied by the visual and aural memory of the opening sequence, which is never to be disassociated from the drama that follows. The heroes of Saving Private Ryan may be on an unremarkable mission (to find Ryan and bring him home), but the circumstances they face in doing so are anything but prosaic: so on their numerous encounters with enemy fire until the final epic battle, the audience is conditioned to continuously react to the indelible memory of the impact of Omaha Beach, aurally triggered at every turn. Examples of this include the rescue of the French girl in the shelled out village, when the first impact of the Rydstrom-Spielberg bullet, shot into Vin Diesel’s back from a German sniper, galvanizes the tension which has been built up by more conventional means (distant gunfire, panicked civilians, Paul Giamatti shouting). Later, in the rush on the German radar site, we are confronted once again by the “surround sound” effect of the German bullets, which makes us seize up in apprehension of the damage we witnessed with our own eyes and ears on the beach.

Spielberg's final act of twisted invention and audience manipulation is to produce, during the closing epic gun battle, a climax of close-quarters horror (Adam Goldberg's character's confrontation with the Nazi and his bayonet on the top floor of a bombed-out house), which, allied to the tragic paralysis of Jeremy Davies's character, threatens to outdo even Omaha Beach for emotional impact. Because of our anticipation of more terrible carnage, we simply cannot have predicted that the toughest scene of all would be a knife-fight played out, finally, in silence.

Even those who would wrestle with the sentimentality or the patriotism of Saving Private Ryan should accept that when one analyzes or debates the artistry of Spielberg it is the primacy of his technique (both mechanical and narrative) that will always shine through and which cannot credibly be denied. His scholarship and prowess in the mechanics of film (and in particular its visual and sound effects) are allied to his ingrained understanding of the most fundamental principles of scary bedtime storytelling. In a sense, he is not unlike the designer-manufacturer of fairground rides, forensically adapting and testing the various physical parts to generate the ultimate kick. Some have wrongly assumed that since Jurassic Park (a film where he seemed to turn on children in an alarming way) Spielberg has put this aspect of his work behind him and settled down into old age to make mature pictures for adults, presumably immune to roller coaster thrills. Not so. Saving Private Ryan is pure action/suspense cinema, much closer to Where Eagles Dare than All Quiet on the Western Front. This is not to denude it of merit, any more than it is fair to pillory The Hurt Locker for not adopting an explicitly antiwar stance. Saving Private Ryan may be sensitive to history and broadly informative, but one suspects neither historically accurate nor significant—the principal appeal of the film lies not in the patriotic philosophies of the mission itself, nor in its deepening of our understanding of the war, but in the poisonous, chilling shroud of fear that surrounds the men who undertake it—and its explosive release, in a flurry of bullets.

Hitchcock proved that there is no cinematic imperative to share ideas or to properly explore human relationships in order to create lasting, significant cinema. More than anything, Spielberg, like Hitchcock, is hell bent on scaring us. If this approach elevates his apparently solemn WWII project to the status of a genuine thrill ride, as terrifying as Jurassic Park and as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s because like all great showmen, Spielberg harbors a fanatical belief in the primacy of the audience “experience”—visual and aural—above all things.